Around the world by bike
Road to nowhere
Thailand - Malaysia - India
(4 644km - 98days - 10 November 2019 - 17 February 2020)
(1 361km - 18days)
10 November - Jomtien – Chonburi – 65 km
It was after 12 midday before finally locking the condo and getting on the bike. For the first 20 kilometres, it took weaving through the Pattaya traffic until the route spat me out in the countryside. A huge weight lifted off my shoulders, and a big grin crossed my face as I made my way past familiar temples and cassava plantations.
On reaching Chonburi, the beachfront was packed with people as all were getting ready to celebrate Loy Krathong, the Festival of Light. I was soon offered a room as owners were out trying to fill their rooms and was offered a ground-floor room one road back from the beach for 300 Thai baht. It was an odd room as it was tiled in white tiles from floor to ceiling, and the toilet had to be flushed with a bucket. I couldn't care as I was as happy as the proverbial pig being, once again, on the road to nowhere.
It took time to sort out the panniers as things were thrown in at random, and there was much sorting out to do, something which took the best part of the evening.
11 November - Chonburi - Pha Pradaeng – 110 km
What a long and varied day it turned out to be. Clearing the northern tip of the Gulf of Thailand was never a pleasant cycling experience. Sprawling Bangkok stretches all the way down the mighty Chao Praya River to where it eventually drains into the Gulf of Thailand. That said, for the first 20 kilometres, the route led along the shallow waters of the Northern Gulf with its abundance of birdlife and fishing opportunities. A restaurant on stilts lured me in for a refreshing cup of iced coffee, and I sat watching and dreaming, realising how lucky I was to be there until I realised I still had quite a way to go.
For the next 10 kilometres, I faced the traffic along a busy highway, which leads to Bangkok. Fortunately, it came with a service road running alongside, but still, it was a lead-laden, fume-inhaling ride. Once across the Bang Pakong River (which is waiting to be explored) a smaller road turned off, and it was a much more pleasant ride through rural Thailand, or as rural as that part of Thailand can be.
Eventually, the road led back to the dreaded Sukhumvit Road. Surprisingly, I spotted a country lane on the opposite side of a canal, which made for a peaceful ride past villagers relaxing in the shade of large trees and past ducks waddling across the path.
A ferry ride across the Chao Phraya River saved a long and congested trip along the main road.
Towards the end of the day, the Rimnam Hotel appeared, and what a lucky find it was as it was situated right on the Bang Khru canal where Loi Krathong festivities were in full swing. People were eating and drinking and families bought decorated offerings in the form of floating flowers, incense and candles, which were light and allowed to float downstream. I was impressed that most were biodegradable.
12 November - Pha Pradaeng – Samut Songkhram – 79km
I left my bare-boned room without coffee, as my room only had one plug socket, and my cup water-heater couldn't make a connection. It didn't come as a surprise as very few things in the room were in working order. A few kilometres down the road, and after clearing most of the early morning traffic, breakfast was from a roadside stall. This is always interesting as one is never sure what's inside those banana-leaf parcels.
Although trying my utmost to find smaller roads, I was still very much in the thick of things. It was only towards the end of the day I finally cleared the worst of the traffic. The area between Samut Songkhram and Bangkok mostly consisted of low-lying, swampy land. Most houses were on stilts, and the majority of activities centred around fish, being it catching it, drying it or manufacturing nets or boats. I, therefore, coasted along past mangroves, across canals (with steep bridges), and tropical-looking rivers where one could hear longtail boats but were unable to see them for the dense vegetation.
The short distance to Samut Songkhram made for early arrival, allowing plenty of time to rinse cycling gear and charging devices. At sunset, the famous food stands made their appearance, and the main street became jam-packed with stalls frying, grilling and steaming their delicacies. There wasn’t much for vegetarians, but I managed to find a few nibbles and with my bounty bagged, returned to the room for an early night.
I zigzagged through the countryside on smaller roads, and from time to time found the route ended abruptly. It was, however, lovely to amble aimlessly, mostly past salt farms where the salt had only just started to form and would still be a few months before it could be harvested.
I have cycled this route on many occasions and, therefore, stayed over in Cha-Am where I frequently overnight. Cha-Am wasn’t much different from Pattaya and appeared to mostly cater to older European men on the prowl for young women. This lifestyle surely seemed to have given the men a new lease on life as the parties continued until the wee hours of the morning. Good for them, and I hope they treated the girls with respect.
14-15 February – Cha-Am – Hua Hin – 31 km
It was a short ride to Hua Hin, which was a blessing as I felt tired. Once in Hua Hin, it was straight to the Bird Guesthouse, my old favourite on stilts over the water. It took no time at all to plonk myself down, glass of wine in hand, looking out over the ocean.
The following day was spent doing laundry and shopping for things I didn’t pack, all of which was found at the local supermarket. The local bike shop provided a new back tyre, and as it was an unfamiliar name (CST Pedium). I wondered how it would fair; I guess I had to wait and see.
That evening, I met up with Gavin, who lives in Hua Hin and, as can be expected, we consumed far too many beers.
16-17 November Hua Hin – Prachuap Khirrikhan – 118 km
It came as no surprise that I didn’t feel to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ummed and aahed whether to stay another day. Eventually, I dragged myself out of the room and got on the bike in the direction of Prachuap. It was no display of speed as I forced my unwilling legs to pedal on, stopping ever so often to fill up with water.
Eventually, I arrived in Prachuap and bunked down at the old faithful, Maggie’s Homestay, where a bed only costs 220 THB for the night.
As Maggie's was inexpensive and centrally located with a water purifying machine as well as washing machines, it was an easy decision to stay another day, do laundry and to look for a pair of cycling gloves as I miraculously lost one glove.
18 November – Pratchuap – Bangsapan Beach – 110 km
Not much happened along the way, although that particular stretch is always a pleasure to cycle as it runs flush next to the coast. Once in Bangsapan, it took some cycling around looking for the most inexpensive room, but there wasn’t much. In the end, I settled for a bungalow for 400 THB as it was a lovely room with aircon. I will most definitely stay there again.
19 November Bangsapan Beach – Chumpon – 112 km
After coffee, the first stop was at a nearby cave. The first one was a bit of a walk up the mountain, and it was clear not many ventured up there as the path was somewhat overgrown. The cave had plenty of natural light, and one could wander about without a soul in sight except for the many hungry mosquitos who made sure I didn’t linger. The second one looked lovely for exploring, but it was so dark one couldn’t see where to walk.
The rest of the day was spent looking for more caves or other interesting things. Still, there wasn't much, and I continued to Chumpon where a very convenient room allowed for wheeling the bike right into the room.
20 November – Chumphon – Pak Nam Langsuan – 86 km
After the previous night’s decision to catch the night ferry to Koh Tao I was slow in rising, especially as it was drizzling, and the ferry wasn’t until 7 p.m. There wasn’t much to do in Chumphon and, after a few hours, I packed up and cycled out of Chumphon as I lacked the tolerance to wait the entire day for the ferry.
The weather cleared, and it was a pleasant cloud-covered cycle through the countryside. At around 60 kilometres, a conveniently located restaurant called for a lunch of fried rice, after which I continued along the coast. No sooner had I left, and a massive storm moved in, complete with horizontal rain and wind. I pushed on regardless, and at times feared the wind was going to blow the bike from under me. There wasn’t much to do but don the plastic raincoat and pull the cap down as low as it would go and push on. The dirt road became a muddy mess and the heavy rain made for poor visibility. At around 85 kilometres, I was relieved to spot a bungalow tucked behind banana plants and pulled in. At first, there was no one in sight at the house. Still, I kept calling, "Sawadee! Sawadee!" Eventually, a young lady appeared, obviously taken by surprise at the sight of a drenched farang and a bicycle.
She pointed me to a wooden bungalow situated right on the beach, and I mean right on the waters' edge, to such an extent I feared the tide could take both me and bungalow into the sea. The room was no larger than the bed and the bathroom – clearly, an afterthought as it was a few steps lower than the room and consisted of a squat toilet and what I call a "mundy" (a concrete reservoir from which one scoops water for a shower). I was like WOW, this is the most magical place I have ever stayed at. Right on the water and all for 250 Thai baht! I hoped the tide wouldn't come in much higher as I could see the sand through the floorboards! As it was low tide, I guessed anything could happen.
I was equally happy I had lunch as there were no food stalls out on the street and I had to make do with cup-noodles. The landowner, a fisherman, and his family invited me to share their dinner, but I declined as their crab and fish looked barely enough for them.
21 November - Pak Nam Langsuan - Surat Thani – 124 km
I was relieved to wake in the morning and still find the bungalow standing and the sea much calmer than the previous day. The owner brought me coffee, and I drank it sitting on my little veranda while he inspected the sea conditions. He only had a small boat, and there was no chance of him going out in those conditions.
The route to Surat Thani was a particularly scenic stretch as it zigzagged through the countryside, mainly sticking close to the coast and past quintessential Thailand scenery of limestone pinnacles. The day was mostly cloudy with a drizzle every now and again. Five kilometres from Surat, the weather came in again and I made my way into the city in the pouring rain. It's always somewhat stressful to cycle into a town (even a small one) in the afternoon traffic and in the pouring rain, all while trying to read a map.
I was happy to reach My Place Hotel and find a room for 230 Thai baht. I headed straight for the shower and then it was off to the night market, located just around the corner.
The next day was also spent in Surat as the room was cheap, and I was in dire need of doing the laundry. There wasn't much to do in Surat, and it is mostly a transport hub and a jumping-off point for the nearby islands. I like places like that as they are typical Thai towns where people go about their usual tasks without catering to tourists. Streets were lined with temples and shops selling temple paraphernalia. Markets sold fish and vegetables, and the alleys were lined with rice stores where it appeared most of their day was spent chasing the greedy pigeons.
23 November – Surat Thani – Tha Khuen – 108 km
It was easy cycling and the weather pleasant. The main road out of Surat was a good road through the scenic countryside. I stayed on it, planning to exit later. Somehow, I never did that and stayed on the main road which was quiet with a good shoulder for cycling. The road was littered with small villages, roadside stalls and the ever-present Buddhist temples. Towards the end of the day, a convenient "24-hour" provided a bed for the night - it was a lovely room with a "normal" bathroom!
24 November – Tha Khuen – Hua Sai – 115 km
I left my luxury accommodation and headed south on my route to nowhere, and what a delightful day it turned out. I’ve never cycled this particular route, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. It clearly wasn’t an area frequented by farangs as I was stared at to no end and there were a few giggly hellos.
My route followed the coast and, as can be expected in Thailand, it was a day of blue skies, bright green rice paddies, ornate temples and colourful fishing boats. In fact, it was so pleasant, I hardly realised I was cycling and the day flew by without noticing.
Seeing I haven’t spoken to anyone in days, I stopped and chatted to a couple making cigarette paper from palm leaves. That was my socialising done for the next week. Soon afterwards, the way came to an abrupt end. Fortunately, there were ferries carting people across the river. (I don't know what cars do as it was a rather small boat.) The price for the ferry ride was 1 Thai baht, and I wondered if collecting 1 THB was worth the paper it was printed on, let alone paying the ferry captain and the ticket seller. In any event, the village on the opposite bank was fascinating, and you can imagine the stares as I cycled off the ferry and weaved my way through the narrow alleyways of the market area.
Soon afterwards, the path reached the coast, an area which appeared to be a windy one as it was the location of a wind farm. I thought it must be getting close to the end of the Gulf of Thailand and closer to the open waters of the South China Sea. I was, once again, impressed by the size of these wind turbines (if that’s what they are called).
November is theoretically winter in Thailand and, although still in the mid-30s, the sun sets much earlier. Around four or five in the afternoon, I started looking out for accommodation. This was my lucky day, and I found a room right on the ocean for 300 Thai baht. I sat watching the sea for a while and then cycled to a nearby shop to find supper. A good day, all in all.
25 November – Hua Sai – Songkhla – 110 km
The early morning drizzle made for a second cup of coffee. Once on the road, it rained on and off all day and the camera hardly came out. Only two mentionable things happened: one was I lost my lens hood in the river. The lens hood has never come off before, and I wondered why it had to happen while on a bridge. (OK, I admit there was a bit more to the story.) The second was just before Songkhlan where I found a car ferry across the mouth of the Songkhla Lake, saving cycling around via Ko Yo. I stand to be corrected, but think the mouth was opened artificially.
It was a day of easy cycling, and I slinked in Songkhla shortly after 3 p.m., covered in drizzle fuelled road muck and more than happy to find a room at Bo Yang Guesthouse. At 450 THB, the room was slightly more than what I have paid before, but it was worth the extra 100 THB as it was a large room with crisp white linen, aircon and a bathroom that even had a bath! (I kid you not!)
27 November – Songkhla
I could see the rain through my bedroom window and believe I wore a smile as I rolled over and continued snoozing. It was, therefore, late in the morning before I finally emerged to place my laundry in the street-side washing machines and set off exploring.
It didn’t take long to find Songkhla, a place that hid many exciting stories. I learned archaeologists found that between the 10th and 14th centuries Songkhla was a large city and an important harbour town which traded with places as far afield as Quanzhou in China. Many decades later, in the 18th century, Chinese citizens settled in this area with the result that today Songkhla has a lovely “Old town” peppered with old, wooden Chinese shophouses. It was a delightful area to explore with narrow lanes, typical Chinese shops and impressive temples. Part of the ancient wall which surrounded the village still exists and the Songkhla Lake is still a busy fishing harbour.
It was an easy walk up the Songkhla Hill that provided views over the city. Once back along the coast, I strolled along the beach and through the sculpture park and, as is often the case with these parks, it was sprinkled with rather odd statues.
Songkhla isn’t without a legend and, as I love legends, I’ll tell you about it. The story goes that a merchant from China often sailed his junk to Songkhla and back. While shopping for goods to take back, he bought a cat and a dog. As time went on, the cat and dog got bored on the ship and decided to steal their master’s magic crystal that prevented drowning. For this job, they asked a mouse to help which stole the crystal, and the three swam ashore. As things go, the mouse wanted to escape with the crystal and the cat wanted crystal and, in the process, the crystal was lost and all drowned. It is said the mouse and cat became the islands in Songkhla Lake while the dog died onshore and became Songkhla hill, known as Hin Khao Tang Kuan.
27 November Songkhla – Padang Basar – 80 km
The weather bureau put out an alert for heavy north-easterly monsoon rain and flash floods across Southern Thailand. Instead of heading south to the Malaysian border, I made use of the tailwind and swung west across the Malay Peninsula. Traditionally, Malaysia’s east coast's rainy season runs from November to February and has a more substantial rainfall than the west coast. Although the current wet weather seems to be across the entire region, I thought it best to head for the west coast.
I flew along with a tailwind and stayed on the main road, something that never makes for exciting cycling. Still, I wanted to get to the west coast and the border as quickly as possible. Most of the rain was expected over the next three days, and if all else failed, one could always park off on Langkawi Island for a few days.
It was evident that I was nearing the Malaysian border as mosques became more frequent and more ladies wore some form of head covering.
On reaching the border town of Padang Basar, threatening clouds made me take a room which, typical of a border town, turned out a real dump! Afterwards, I was sorry as the rain was light and one could still have made good distance. As the room was already paid for, I took a walk to the nearby food stalls for food and bunkered down in my pink windowless room.
(625km - 8days)
28 November – Padang Basar, Thailand – Alor Setar, Malaysia – 87 km
Malaysia must have one of the easiest border crossings in the entire world. After being stamped out of Thailand, it was a short ride to the Malaysian immigration where one is stamped in. Still, it was after 9.30 before heading south.
With a population density of 97 people per square kilometre, Malaysia isn’t as densely populated as Thailand, which has a density of 134.2 people per square kilometre and Malaysia, therefore, has more open spaces than Thailand. The far northern part of Malaysia was a particularly scenic area with limestone outcrops and bright green rice fields. A strong tailwind made for easy cycling.
Malaysia is a multicultural and multiconfessional country, whose official religion is Islam. It is said that about 60% of the population practices Islam, 20% Buddhism, 10% Christianity, 6.5% Hinduism and 3.5% traditional Chinese religions. The food is, therefore, equally multicultural and includes Chinese, Indian and Malay - a food paradise, if you ask me. The most common being Mee Goreng, consisting of yellow noodles, to which is added chicken, beef or soy sauce, veggies and egg. Now, all that is required is to learn the word for “vegetarian”. Then there is the very popular Nasi Lemak, Malaysia's unofficial national dish. The basis of Nasi Lemak is rice cooked in coconut milk. It isn’t always the same, but it’s mostly served with a boiled egg, peanuts, vegetables, your choice of meat or fish, and sambal. My favourite is always roti canai, an Indian flatbread served with a scoop of chickpea curry, or curry laksa, a spicy noodle soup.
Oil-rich Malaysia’s currency (Malaysian ringgit) is somewhat stronger than the Thai baht (app. $1 = 4 Malaysian ringgit compared to $1 = 30 Thai baht) and one has to fork out a bit more for accommodation than in Thailand.
My first bowl of Mee Goreng was at a roadside stall after which it was on to Alor Setar. Alor Setar had plenty of budget accommodation, and I was literally “home and dry” before 15h00. A walk revealed it to be the Chinese part of town as there were plenty of Chinese restaurants, something I didn’t complain about. The food was delicious and all was washed down with a Tiger beer.
29 November - Alor Setar – Georgetown, Penang – 95 km
I wasn’t in the mood for traffic and headed straight for the backroads. Soon, my route twisted and turned through rice fields and small hamlets where the ever-friendly Malaysians greeted in a way which appeared they were genuinely surprised and happy to see me.
On reaching the large Merbok River, I was pleased to find a ferry operating across to Pantai Merdeka, saving me a long ride back to the main road. In Butterworth, the road led straight to the ferry terminal and onto Penang Island situated in the Strait of Malacca. It's, in fact, this strategic location which made Penang what it is today.
Many moons ago, it was an important trade route between Europe, the Middle East, India and China. With the Strait of Malacca located exactly on the crossing of the two monsoon seasons, ships couldn't set sail until the winds were favourable. While waiting for the winds to change, sailors left behind their unique cultures and today the streets are still lined with delicacies from China, India and the Middle East. No time was wasted in ordering, not only samosas but also falafel, again washed down with a tall Tiger beer.
30 November 2019 - 1 December - Georgetown
Although Georgetown isn't what it used to be hundreds of years ago, it is still a magical place to explore. Not only are the streets lined with food stalls, but the narrow lanes are jampacked with interesting architecture. It’s said a Chinese merchant first charted the island way back in the 15th century, but I understand Indian merchants reached this part of the world as early as the 1st century to collect herbs, spices and gold. It wasn’t until 1595 that the Dutch arrived and not long after that the English. Today, it’s all still visible in the architecture from Fort Cornwallis and the Sri Mariamman temple to Kapitan Keling Mosque.
One of the most interesting places for me to visit is the clan jetties, dating back to 1882. In those years, the jetties were dominated by clans and homes were constructed along the wooden walkways. Nothing much has changed and till this day clans reside here.
2 December – Georgetown – Taiping – 110 km
After two full days in Georgetown, it was time to pack up and cycle to the ferry port. Although the map indicated a cycle route, I had other ideas and followed my nose. My nose was clearly not good, as in trying to locate smaller roads I got completely bogged down in the mud and had to return to the highway. Once on the highway, there was no getting off, and it took at least 40 kilometres before finding an exit. By then, I wasn’t in a mood for exploring and headed for Taiping on the best possible route available to me.
Clouds gathered, and it was clear I wasn’t going to make it to Taiping without getting soaked. Ten kilometres before Taiping, the heavens opened up, and it poured as it could only do in the tropics. It wasn’t long before all was over, and a few kilometres further, the road was bone dry.
The old stalwart, Peking Hotel, was renovated and not as inexpensive as it used to be. Fortunately, I located Sojourn Beds & Café where a bed was only 35MR, and I was the only one in the guesthouse. Conveniently located across the road from the night market made it an easy choice.
3 December – Taiping - Lamut – 100 km
I discovered Malaysia was an hour behind Thailand! I, therefore, left at after 9 a.m. instead of what I thought was a very early start for me. I couldn’t make up my mind which way to go, and instead of heading for either Ipoh or Lamut, I headed straight south and followed country roads.
It was a surprisingly scenic ride on a perfect road past mostly oil-palm plantations. Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest producers of palm oil, and it is, therefore, no surprise to cycle past large plantations. Interestingly enough, it is a tropical oil and only grows within 10 degrees north and south of the equator.
Eventually, I had to make a call and headed for Lamut, or rather Sitiawan, as it had heaps of accommodation and food.
4 December – Sitiawan – Kuala Selangor – 145 km
I don’t know what got into me, but I was on the road early and hardly ever stopped. I didn’t even have breakfast or any other food during the day and never felt hungry. I was like a woman possessed!
It was quite impossible to follow the main road - not only was it busy, but it seemed the entire road was being widened. I stayed on the country lanes and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The path zigzagged through oil-palm plantations, sometimes on paved roads and sometimes on dirt roads. A ferry ride across the Bernam River made for a fun way to get to the opposite side.
The weather was good, and as it didn’t look like rain, I made good use of the favourable conditions and only called it a day once I reached Kuala Selangor. The Melawati Hotel was home for the night, and it was easily the smallest room I have ever stayed in. So small was the room, the single bed only just fitted, not even leaving enough space for a bedside table!
5 December - Kuala Selangor – Puchong – 88 km
My late start was partly due to my windowless room and partly to the long distance and late night the previous day. It wasn’t the most scenic of cycles as I was heading into Kuala Lumper, Malaysia’s capital (commonly known as KL), and a city with an urban conglomerate of 7,700,000! It’s an ever-growing area and road works are a part of life but does not make for good cycle touring. I, however, made it to my hotel and later met up with my friend Peter and his wife, Alice. We jabbered on forever as I haven’t seen them for a while.
The next two days were spent packing my bicycle and panniers for my flight to India. Peter kindly got me a bicycle box beforehand and, with his help, the bicycle was soon in the box. My laundry was done, and a few beers were consumed (which was already chilled even before my arrival). It’s the kind of stuff one can never thank someone enough for.
Booking a budget flight meant my flight was at an ungodly hour but, still, Peter drove me to the airport. Afterwards, I swore I'll never book a budget airline again, no matter how tempting the price might be. The luggage fee was so astronomical I could’ve flown with a far more comfortable airline for the same price.
(2 658km - 72days)
8-9 December – Kuala Lumper, Malaysia – Chennai, India
With cheap flights, it seemed the further you flew the less expensive the ticket. I, therefore, flew via New Delhi, India's capital, to Chennai, where I arrived at around midday. Needless to say, with my flight from KL departing at 2 a.m. and 3-hour transfer time in Delhi I never slept a wink as the seats couldn’t recline!
An equally expensive taxi ride (due to the bicycle) took me into the city centre and dropped me at Paradise Guesthouse. Ironically, it wasn’t much of a paradise as the room didn't even come with a towel. On the other hand, what can one expect for $7?
It took me the remainder of the day to calm down, relax and breath in India, something that can take a while. Tuk-tuks jostled their way through the traffic, holy cows meandered across busy main roads, homeless people, baby on hip, smiled easily. Amidst the chaos, devotees prayed at pavement-side Hindu temples, while the sweet smell of incense mixed with the stench of sewage. It can all be somewhat overwhelming.
10 December – Chennai
India is large - it covers an area of 3,287,263 square kilometres, making it the 7th largest country on earth. It extends from the snow-covered Kangchenjunga (8586m), the 3rd highest mountain in the world, to the hot and steamy rice paddies of Kuttanad, 2.2m, below sea level. I’m nowhere close to any of these two points but will most likely cycle past Kuttanad. For now, I will be heading south along the coast to Kanyakumari, the most southern point on mainland India.
Early morning, I reassembled the bicycle and then took to the streets of Chennai on foot. With India having a population of 1,372,000, one is never quite out of the thick of things. Fortunately, Chennai is a coastal city and boasts the world’s second-longest urban beach. When things get too much, one can always head that way. Being stared at is something you simply have to live with, but it’s easier said than done, and it gets to me. Fortunately, Indians are friendly, and it's easy to strike up a conversation.
The state of Tamil Nadu has some of India’s finest temples, and I started off by visiting Kapalweeshwaram. It is said the temple was constructed after the original one was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1566. It’s a typical, ornate and colourful Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva.
My walk to Fort St George took me past the San Thome Cathedral, also built by the Portuguese, and past Chennai’s lighthouse. After the colourful Kapalweeshwaram temple, I found the fort rather dull, and instead headed for a restaurant. While enjoying my palak mutter paneer, I watched renovation work being carried out on the magnificent Chepauk Palace. It appeared most of the hard labour was done by women.
11 December Chennai – Mamallapuram – 65 km
I left Chennai amidst the morning traffic and together with what felt like Chennai’s entire 10.4 million people, tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws and the ever-present holy cows. There are times I think only a movie would reflect the chaos and bizarreness of the situation. In fact, it is quite astonishing that these cows can wander at random across a busy highway and make it alive to the opposite side. I, on the other hand, may not be that safe. That said, drivers appeared aware of slow-moving traffic, and I was, by far, not the only bicycle on the road. I made my way along the coast past slum-like areas, fishing boats and ladies selling whatever was caught during the night. Men in longyis peddled their wares on Hero bicycles, and roadside stalls sold coconuts and sugarcane juice.
After about 15 kilometres, I took a break to give my mind a rest. I pulled into a McDonalds as I wanted to see what they sold in a country which considered the cow sacred. My breakfast muffin came with an egg and cheese and, fortunately, no patty. I don't know if this is the norm or if it is only the breakfast muffin which comes without meat. I thought it a bit bland as after only two days I'm already used to the spicy Indian food.
Then it was back on the bike, and as soon as I reached the outskirts of Chennai, I was on a new double lane highway with a good shoulder. Add to that a slight tailwind, and it was easy cycling to the temple town of Mamallapuram.
The town is known for its rock-cut temples dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was, therefore, no wonder it is immensely touristy with plenty of accommodation and food and everything else that goes with it. Stalls sold Indian clothing and jewellery as well as trinkets from Tibet. Its UNESCO status is also reflected in the prices charged. The rest of the day was spent wandering around. After a plate of momos and a rather costly beer, I retreated to my typical Indian room.
12-13 December – Mamallapuram – Puducherry – 101 km
After coffee and breakfast at Joe’s, I headed out of Mamallapuram along the Bay of Bengal in the direction of Puducherry. The road varied from fantastic to narrow without any shoulder. Fortunately, nothing lasts very long in India and whatever the road condition, it soon changed. The route was often shaded as trucks and busses have, with time, cut a tunnel through the overhanging branches.
I stopped for coconut juice and ginger tea and struck op conversations with friendly people along the way. The good rains filled the rice paddies, and all seemed busy working in the fields or leading cattle to greener pastures.
Many moons ago, in 1523, the Portuguese arrived in Chennai and the British and French nearly 100 years later. In 1746, the French attacked and took over the British built fort. It didn't take the British long to recapture the fort and the French sailed for Pondicherry, which remained under French rule until 1954. To this day, the old part of town is lined with French-era townhouses, coffee shops and restaurants. I found a spot for the night at a popular ashram guesthouse where the sparse rooms were clean and the courtyard filled with plants. I splashed out and got myself a ground floor aircon room for 950 rupees ($13.50). I could have had a less expensive place but was too lazy to carry the panniers upstairs.
Every morning before sunrise, the street in front of the houses are cleaned and kolams drawn. Kolams are thought to bring prosperity to homes. New ones are made every day.
I woke to bucketing rain making it an easy choice to stay another day. In the process of wandering the streets, I bought myself a new, small camera. I shouldn’t have spent so much money on a camera, but what’s done is done. As it was raining most of the day, the market made a perfect place to try out my new toy.
14 December – Pondicherry – Chidambaram - 80 km
In the morning, it was still raining and with my laundry still being damp I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave. The weather, however, soon cleared and I packed up and cycled the short distance to Auroville, a community of foreigners living in the forest. They say they are dedicated to peace, sustainability and divine consciousness. It’s a community of about 25 000 from all over the globe, and I spotted many organic farms, restaurants and arty shops.
From Auroville, I was going to cycle past the fossil woods, but it was already late, and after a quick stop for a cup of milk tea, I was on my way. The back road I wanted to take petered out completely, and it was best to return to the hectic main road with its deafening noise.
Roadside stalls squeezed orange juice and sold coconut juice, not something I complained about. My roadside snacks vary from country to country, and in India it’s a combination of samosas, vada and pakora. With a bag full I continued to Chidambaram.
The only reason to pull into Chidambaram was to visit the temple complex of Nataraja. In a heavy rainstorm, I cycled into the hectic town centre, phew! Dripping wet, the first hotel told me they were full. I wonder if they were…
Down the lane from the temple, I found a local joint for only 300 rupees - the price reflected the lack of cleanliness. After a massive dosa and more sweet tea, I popped into the temple, which had an enormous courtyard with a lovely cool breeze. Legend has it that Shiva and Kali got into a dance-off judged by Vishnu. Shiva dropped an earring and picked it up with his foot, a move Kali couldn’t manage. Shiva won the title of Nataraja, or Lord of the Dance, and to this day people come to the temple to worship him.
15 December – Chidambaram – Kumbakonam – 78 km
Instead of cycling along the coast, I veered inland and headed for Kumbakonam with its 18 colourful temples. It was good to be back on a more rural road where the chanting from the temples drifted across the rice paddies and where villagers lived in nipa huts and bathed in the river. Junction towns were no less hectic than the bigger cities. Men huddled together drinking chai from corrugated iron sheds, and women cared for the goats and bathed their treasured cows. About halfway, I stopped at the World Heritage-listed Chola temple of Gangaikondacholapuram (quite a name!). It’s a massive 49-metre-tall temple with an equally large Nandi (a bull) facing the temple. In the process, I bumped my foot against a protruding metal pipe and think I now have a broken second toe! Fortunately, I could manage to cycle as long as there was no unexpected stopping.
I continued to Kumbakonam and, once there, tried to duct tape the toes together, but the pain and discomfort were no better. All it did was to attract even more attention to me, and my, by now, swollen foot. I was starving as I didn’t eat all day and hobbled to the nearest Meals restaurant, where food is served on a banana leaf. It isn’t easy to find beer in Tamil Nadu, and one mostly needs to buy it at a wine shop. The wine shop sells liquor from behind bars, and I attracted a fair number of stares. I don’t think any women as ever bought anything there and with beer clutched under the arm, I limped back to my budget room! What a pathetic sight it must have been.
16-18 December – Kumbakonam – Trichy – 101 km
I cried with pain and frustration when I knocked my toe against the foot of the bed! I believe the word ‘fuck’ left my mouth with alarming frequency. After calming down, I rubbed some stuff on which is said to numb pain and took a Cataflam. I wish I had shoes with a solid hard sole, like cycling shoes, instead of my bendy slides.
Nothing to do but pack up and cycle out of Kumbakonam, as cycling was much less painful than walking, provided I placed the pedal under the heal of the foot instead of the ball.
The intention was to pop into Darasuram’s Airavatesvara Temple constructed between 1146-73, but when I looked, I was already past the turn-off. A few kilometres further, I reached Thanjavur, and it is from here it is said Hinduism spread beyond India.
The town had two remarkable sights, the Royal Palace and the Brihadishwara Temple. I won’t bore you with the details but will mention the Chola dynasty of southern India was one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the history of the world! All the temples visited so far dates back to this magical time of India. Maintenance work is being carried out at the Brihadishwara Temple, and the complex was, therefore, not very photogenic. Still, the details remain mind-blowing and, at first, I thought of overnighting in Thanjavur as at sunset this must be a wonderful place to visit. I, however, finished visiting both the temple and the palace early and decided to carry on to Trichy, a further 60 kilometres down the road.
The going was relatively easy, and I was getting used to the frenzied junction towns, where all one can do is laugh at the sheer madness of it all. “Livin' on a prayer”, sprang to mind! With me leaving Thanjavur long after midday, reaching Trichy was around 5 p.m. and in the craziest of traffic anyone can imagine! I pulled into the nearest budget option and here is the weirdest thing, it’s the exact place where I stayed nearly 11 years ago on my first cycle around India en route from Pakistan to Nepal!
The following day, I stayed put to visit the famous Rockfort temple and the Sri Ranganathaswammy Temple. Instead of cycling around Trichy, I took a tuk-tuk which made the going far easier, both for my stress levels and my painful toe. First up was the Rockfort temple and, built on top a massive rocky outcrop, it took some climbing to get to the top with beautiful views of the city below. From there, I shared a tuk-tuk with three Indian ladies on their way to the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, most likely India’s largest as it has 49 Vishnu shrines and seven gopurams (ornate entrance gates).
I wanted to do my laundry, but no one will believe me if I say I couldn’t find washing powder. The following day, I made a more serious effort and found a small sachet at a hole-in-the-wall shop. As the laundry was still dripping wet in the morning, I paid for another night and lazed about as I still wasn’t well.
19-24 December Trichy – Madurai – 130 km
I thought I was coming down with the flu, hoping it wasn’t dengue fever. I packed up and cycled to Madurai. It was a most challenging day and the going slow. I felt absolutely dreadful and had little energy, but pushed on. The only interesting thing I noticed was a Christian church mimicking the local religious buildings, clearly incorporating both Islam and Hinduism. It’s not all surprising as they have been doing it since the very beginning. In fact, Christmas (which is supposed to be Jesus's birthday) was a holiday adopted from the Roman winter solstice. I don’t think historians or biblical scholars have ever pinpointed a day or year for this event. I find all religions both interesting and bizarre and wholeheartedly believe it should be taught as a subject at school.
I can't describe my relief in reaching Madurai (traffic and all) and a room where I could be horizontal.
The plan was all along to stay the next day to revisit the famous Meenakshi Temple. I wasn’t feeling well but took a walk or hobble to the temple. It was, once again, a massive complex, and it is said to be the epitome of India's temple architecture. Unfortunately, one could only take pictures from the outside.
I now expected to have contracted a mild case of dengue fever, and I say mild as, if it was anything like the previous two cases, I would have been man down by now! The body aches, and pain behind the eyes, coupled with a fever and diarrhoea (not going into any detail about the walk back from the temple) made me expect the worst. I planned on staying a few days in Madurai. Arghhh, things were clearly not going my way.
Eventually, I started to feel better and could at least walk up the few stairs to my room without having to rest! I even took a slow walk to the Palace, just to get out of the room and to move the legs a bit.
Doing nothing made me realise one can’t order a curry in India. That’s right, there just isn’t such a thing. “Curry” is, in fact, a British word derived from the word “Kari”, meaning sauce in Tamil. Tamil is the language spoken in the state of Tamil Nadu where I was at that moment.
I felt much better and planned on leaving Madurai the next day. I didn't know if it was such a good idea as the 25th is a public holiday in India. It's most likely more of a bank holiday than a religious one. Even with more than 900 million Hindus in the country, India's constitution doesn’t allow for an official government religion. According to the 2011 census, roughly about 80% of the population is Hindu, 14% Islam, 2.3% Christian, and about 1.7% Sikh. With those figures in mind, a holiday like Christmas is more a party day, much like I would celebrate Diwali at home - not sure what it's all about but still having a drink or two and shooting a few fireworks, and I'm sure, all slightly inappropriate for Hindus. I don't like being on the road on days like that, but I'm more than ready to leave my hovel of a room.
I'm not a spiritual or religious person and don't celebrate any specific day or event. Still, these celebrations are a reminder just how similar all religions are. All seemingly have a holiday full of light and joy and giving. A holiday where families get together (mostly decked out in new clothes) and a day people celebrate their good fortune and sharing with others by giving gifts or money. A day when people forget about work, count their blessings, eat (mostly too much) and celebrate family and friends. I may even don a red pointy hat! Peace to all!
Bicycle rickshaws are still a popular form of transport in India. I always feel sorry for these guys as it looks really hard work. Today, while walking the streets of Madurai, I was once again approached and offered a tour of the temple area. Although I have seen most of it, the chap was so enthusiastic I accepted his offer. At first, I thought of giving him the 100 rupees he wanted for an hour’s tour and leave it at that. Somehow, he was so excited I got in and off we went. What a humbling experience it was! Not only did he pedal me around the place, but he also acted as a tour guide and pointed out interesting markets and customs. Our tour lasted just over two hours, and he was so proud of his job; it nearly brought me to tears. On passing his friends and acquaintances, he announced to all where I was from (or at least that was what I thought he said), something I found slightly embarrassing, but he had such a big smile on his face I couldn’t help liking him. At the end of the ride, I gave him what money I had left, which wasn’t much as I didn’t take my wallet or camera when I walked out. The 500 rupees (a mere $7) gave me the impression he has never been paid that amount for two hours work, something which made me ball my eyes out once in the room!
India has 780 languages, the world's second-highest number of languages (after Papua New Guinea with 839). Contrary to what I have believed, Hindi isn’t the official language in India. Instead, the constitution of India doesn’t give any language the status of a national language. I guess with 780 languages it’s best to leave that can of worms alone. That said, English is widely understood and spoken, and about 50% of the population speaks Hindi as a first language. Just to make things even more confusing, most states have their own official language.
25 December - Madurai – Sattur – 106 km
The streets were still quiet when I cycled out of Madurai. The plan was to cycle in the direction of Dhanushkodi, a stone’s throw from Sri Lanka (but without a ferry connection). The area has an interesting history but 15 kilometres down the road I realised I’m heading into the prevailing wind. Just there and then I made a U-turn and headed through farmlands in the direction of Kanyakumari.
The settlements along the way were rather rural, and I had a good few stares. Farmers were drying their grain crop on the tarmac while waiting for vehicles to drive over it before winnowing it. It appeared mostly jowar, or sorghum, and ragi (an extremely nutritious millet), as well as bajra, also a type of millet, I think. Whether this is correct, I don’t know as I have little knowledge of these grains, or are they perhaps seeds?
It was a relatively short day, and I arrived early in Sattur, situated on the bank of the Vaippar River. There wasn’t much to do in town as it was only a small hamlet with a population of about 30,000. Fortunately, there were more than enough food places around to keep me going until the morning.
26 December – Sattur – Tirunvelveli – 90 km
After my usual morning chai, I left and no sooner were I on the road when suddenly the sky darkened and took on an unusual glow. On looking up, I noticed an eclipse of the sun and pulled off to take a few shots. I wasn’t very successful in my attempt, except for a few very strange pictures, partly due to the filter, I guess. It was just all too weird. I tried using the tripod, but I was on a bridge, and the vibration of the vehicles didn’t do much for the stability of the ground. All I got was a few crappy shots.
Then it was on to Vettuvan Koil, an unfinished 8th-century rock-cut temple. Legend has it that a rivalry between a father and son resulted in the son finishing his sculpture on the lower hills first. The father was so mad he killed the son, and the shrine remained unfinished. The walk to the top was more than worth it. Not only did it have a stunning view of the tiny but colourful village below but it also came with interesting rock-cut carvings.
From there, it was about 45 kilometres to Tirunvelveli through a very rural part of India. Not only did I receive (understandably) a large amount of well-meaning attention, but once again, I was very impressed with India. It seemed the entire area is being transformed into a large windfarm. Well done, India.
27 December – Tirunvelveli – Kanyakumari – 89 km
It was a short and uneventful ride through what is known as India’s deep south. I only stopped once for tea at a bakery where one could get fudge and also vegetable puffs. The wind turbines increased, and I was happy to be going with the wind. This may, however, all change once I’ve rounded the southern tip of the subcontinent.
Kanyakumari was a total madhouse, and it felt that India’s entire 1.3 billion population had descended on this small town for the weekend. Schools had a short 10-day break over this time, and it appeared every man and his dog were on holiday. All hotels were chock-a-block full and the only room available was a 2000 rupee one which came without a top sheet, hot water or a towel! I was slightly peed off as I knew they were ripping people off, but there was nothing one could do.
The interesting part about Kanyakumari is not only that it is the most southern location of the Indian subcontinent, but that it is located along the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea as well as the Indian Ocean. The crowds got the better of me, and after snapping a pic or two of the Vivekananda memorial, situated 400 metres offshore and dedicated to Swami Vivekananda as well as the statue of Thiruvalluvar (an ancient Tamil poet), I returned to the calm of my room.
28–31 December 2019 – Kanyakumari – Kovalam – 94 km
It was the first morning I felt more or less healthy after my illness and a good thing too, as it turned out a rather hilly ride. The coastal road was a particularly scenic ride along the Laccadive Sea. The road led past the smallest of fishing hamlets, deserted beaches and traditional boat builders. Any water stops came with a barrage of questions, mostly “What's your name?”, What’s your country?” and “You’re a-gee?” (their way of pronouncing “age”). Halfway, the route crossed into the state of Kerela, well known for its backwaters, something that was clearly visible right from the start.
Towards the end of the day, there was one last hill to climb into the town of pretty Kovalam, a very touristy beach town and the first time seeing western tourists on my cycle from Chennai. The beachfront was lined with hotels and restaurants. Gone were the days of the inexpensive rooms and the cheap eats. A pricy room overlooking the beach was home for the night and, although lovely, it was way over the budget, and I knew I would have to look for cheaper accommodation in the morning. It was, however, a rather nice spot and the beach was looking ever so inviting, add to that the sound of the ocean and it was close to paradise.
The following day was the big trek to a less expensive place around the corner. A leg wax and pedicure made it possible to walk around without looking like a gorilla.
The next two days were spent lazing around as there wasn’t much to do in tiny Kovalam. New Year’s Eve started early with at least four bands walking the beachfront which was no more than about one kilometre long. It was a cacophony of deafening music that went on all night. Local tourists loved it and followed them up and down the beachfront, dancing to the music. Midnight came with a few firecrackers but no fireworks, as expected.
1 January 2020 – Kovalam – Varkala – 61 km
I was happy to get out of Kovalam as one can only do nothing for so long. Getting out of Kovalam meant pushing the bike up a rather steep hill to the main road, something which was only achieved with the help of a friendly shop owner. The year had only just begun, and already I had my first random act of kindness! I doubt if I would have made it on my own as cycling in slides has its disadvantages. The hill was so steep, I kept slipping out my sandals! The rest of the day was a short but pleasant ride through rural areas where a foreign woman on a bicycle was clearly a novelty.
A breakfast stop was equally interesting as it was only a tiny roadside stall where it appeared the owner was rather surprised to have a foreigner at his humble stall. The meal consisted of two ottadas, a breakfast dish made with rice flour and coconut and served with a masala egg, all washed down with a glass of masala tea.
My route followed a narrow road with the ocean on the one side and the backwaters on the other, making for an interesting ride. So narrow was this strip of land between the road and the ocean, there was barely enough space for a dwelling. Most of these houses were in ruins, and it appeared a retaining wall has been added to stem rough seas. The ruins could be leftovers from the 2004 tsunami which hit the area.
Once in Varkala, it didn’t take long to find accommodation as most of the domestic tourists had already left for home. That said, the beach was still packed with mostly local tourists and only a few foreigners. The prices of rooms had also nearly returned to normal and cost 700 Indian rupees for a decent room with a hot water shower and a large balcony, a mere 250 metres from the beach. This find left more than enough time for a swim and a meal of chana masala and roti and, of course, more tea!
2-3 January – Varkala – Alappuzha – 112 km
So often in India, the question "Why are you travelling by bicycle?" is asked. It's a difficult one to answer as there is no social or moral justification for what I do. Some may even call it selfish as I only do what I enjoy. Some people even go as far as calling me brave, something I find somewhat embarrassing, as I'm far from brave. If I stayed in the city and continued working in the concrete jungle until a pensionable age, that would have been brave. The reality is more that my un-authoritarian personality, coupled with an inability to conform makes me ill-suited for a happy life in a structured social society. It's best for all that I roam freely. Hahaha, I guess it’s easier to say, "That's what I like doing!"
I mostly followed the coastal road, which made for a relaxed and scenic ride, albeit a slow one. Devastating floods swept through Kerala in 2018, and although Kerala got back on its feet amazingly quickly, it appeared that some of the coastal roads have only been repaired by adding a layer of gravel, making for a slightly bumpy and slow ride. Halfway through the day, I opted for the main road as it was far more comfortable going but somewhat uninteresting, as is usually the case with main roads.
The most interesting part was cycling slap-bang into a local protest. I'm not sure what it was all about, but there were thousands of people (men only) demonstrating. Police ushered me through the crowds like a celebrity, and the mass of people opened up as Moses did with the Red Sea. I was relieved to clear the madness, and as the road was closed for vehicles, I had it to myself all the way into the city!
Dream Nest Stay Hostel made for a cheap and relaxing place to stay, and as a room with a mattress on the floor only came at 150 rupees, I paid for two nights, did laundry and updated all that I have neglected.
Thanks so much too who read my jabbering and for all the comments, likes and reactions through the years. Without those, I guess I wouldn't have posted. Keeping a diary isn’t solely to remember, but it reinforces how lucky I am and how much there is to be grateful for. Thanks for keeping me company along the way.
4-5 January – Alappuzha – Fort Kochi – 60 km
It was another short ride from Alappuzha to Fort Kochi with its mix of Portuguese, Dutch and British history. Kochi’s history goes back many hundreds of years and the St Francis Church in town is the oldest in India. Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498, built a fort, hence the name, and Fort Kochi remained in Portuguese hands for 160 years until the Dutch destroyed the fort and held the area for 112 years. The British took control in 1795, and the area remained British until Indian independence in 1947. Long before Europeans arrived along the Malabar Coast, Arabian and Chinese traders frequented the area in their search for spices, especially pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and sandalwood. What I found even more interesting is that there is still an area known as “Jew Town” complete with a synagogue. It is said that Jews arrived in India from Judea during the reign of King Solomon and became known as Malabari Jews. Today, however, I believe only a handful of Jewish people remain in town.
Today, Fort Kochi is mostly known for its Chinese fishing nets, laid back travellers’ lifestyle and arty cafes.
As always, I found the backstreets far more interesting and, on my wanderings, I found the washing Ghats, a fascinating place where laundry is still done by hand. Men stood knee-deep in water, washing and wringing clothes which were then hung out in the sun to dry.
That evening, I bought a ticket for the Kathakali show. The make-up is so elaborate that it takes more than an hour to apply and can be watched by the public. I only watched for a few minutes and then ran down to the waterfront to see if I could get a few pics of the Chinese fishing nets at sunset. I didn’t wait for sunset as I didn't want to miss the show which started at 6 p.m. and sunset was only at 6.15. After a few shots, I hurried back to the theatre to watch the show. The performance is all about storytelling using hand signals, facial expressions and eye movement. The most extraordinary thing is that before the performance, certain seeds are placed in the eyes to make them red! And to think they do this every night, 365 times a year!
The rest of the evening was spent at the hostel in the company of other travellers, chatting and enjoying the local Kingfisher beer.
I was no ball of energy due to going to bed after 2h00. Fortunately, it was easy riding and a pleasure to be out on the road. From Fort Kochi, a ferry operated to Vypin Island, a narrow strip of land between the ocean and the backwaters. At first, the road was far too busy for my liking, but the smaller coastal road turned out a bumpy, potholed road, and I returned to the madness of the main road.
Another ferry ride took me to the mainland and then it was a far quieter road leading through tiny one-lane fishing hamlets. With all my zigzagging I didn’t get very far and called it a day at Chavakkad which had loads of accommodation as well as food.
7 January – Chavakkad – Kozhikode (Calicut) – 90 km
Phew, what a slow ride it turned out to be. The road was rather bumpy and varied between good and impassable at times. Fortunately, two ferry rides across rivers made the day slightly shorter than expected. That said, it was still a lovely ride (mostly) along the coast.
Cycling in India can be taxing at times, as the constant attention gets to me. From small children to elderly people, all are interested in your doings, all with the best intentions, and I wouldn't want it any other way. For women, even old ones like me, no ride goes without the usual whistles and hissings like a snake, something I can do without. From time to time, one gets approached with clearly other intensions, but on spotting the age difference, they usually beat a hasty retreat. It’s the only time in my life where being old is an advantage. I never thought there could be an advantage to old age, but there you have it!
It was the first time I met other cyclists in India. Two guys, one from Spain and one from Tunisia, were on their way south. They met somewhere along the way and are cycling together for the time being.
Once in Calicut, it took weaving through the insane evening traffic to the Alakapuri Hotel. Built around a courtyard, the rooms were motel-style and perfect for me. The onsite restaurant where one could sit and have a beer was an added bonus, but first I had to do laundry and fix a flat tyre before I could relax with a cold Kingfisher.
8 January – Calicut – Kannur – 93 km
Soon after leaving, I discovered a nation-wide strike was being held in India. Let me rather say “I think” it was nation-wide and not only in Kerala. The advantage was I had the road virtually to myself and sped along to Kannur in record time! The only problem being not a single restaurant or shop was open for getting water or something to eat. Food wasn’t all-important, but the water was. Fortunately, I located two stalls where water was available. Thank, goodness, for that.
I only stopped once at the Thalassery Fort, the first-ever fort built by the British along the Malabar Coast way back in 1705. It’s believed that the fort has many secret rooms and even a tunnel that leads to the Arabian Sea.
Once in Kannur, I located a budget hotel; fortunately, most hotels in India have “room service” meaning that they will buy food and bring it to your room. I was more than happy and ordered two meals, something that must have been unusual as he repeated the order three times.
9 January – Kannur – Kasaragod – 100 km
The day started with an early morning ferry crossing. These boats never fail to amaze and, as mentioned before, the fee was only 5 or 10 Indian rupees. It must be running as a charity as there was a captain, a ticket seller as well as a ticket collector who collects the ticket and promptly drops it in the river. I usually pay the same price for the bicycle and for that price I get a hand in loading the bike and panniers onto the boat. The ride is usually just long enough for them to enquire about my good name, my country and my age.
Shortly after my ferry ride, my path came to an abrupt end at a railway line and, while wondering how I will get the bike across the double tracks, a friendly guy offered to carry it across. He must have underestimated the weight as soon the sweat started dripping from his face. I encouraged him by telling him how strong he was, as I was scared he’d leave the bike in the middle of the tracks!
The Malabar coast is littered with forts, but I only visited one being the Bekal Fort. Built around 1650, it’s the largest fort in India and large it surely is. During the years, it had been occupied by various rulers as well as the British.
From Bekal, it was just 15 kilometres to Kasaragod where I found a basic room on the outskirts of town facing the traffic into the city centre.
My funny story for the day: Maybe you can remember that I broke my toe about three weeks ago? The toe is on the mend, and I can now, for the first time, walk without a limp. Here is the amusing part: On curling my toes, that toe sticks straight up and looks like I’m giving someone the middle finger……or toe? I wonder if it will ever come right? Hahaha, one never knows when you may need the ability to do such a thing!
10 January - Kasaragod – Camp 21 – 40 km
The previous night’s room, as mentioned before, was very basic. In fact, so basic was it that out of the three sliding devices on the door, two were broken out of the frame, and only the very bottom one was still in place. I approached reception and enquired if the hotel was safe. Of course, they said yes and moved me to another room. This room was equally filthy and also only had one sliding lock, but at least it was in the middle of the door. I have slept in some dodgy places, but this one was streaks ahead of even the worse one to date.
Around 2 a.m. angry voices could be heard with someone kicking a door, explaining the missing laches. Right there and then I packed up and left the place. The two guys at reception were already sleeping and somewhat surprised to see me, but they let me out. In the pitch dark (it was clearly not the best part of town), I cycled to the nearest decent hotel. There the staff were also in bed but woke and booked me in, and I was relieved to be in a decent hotel with elevator, towels, bed sheets and even air-conditioning.
It was long past 3 a.m. before I finally got into bed and could have a decent, albeit short night’s sleep.
I was no ball of energy cycling out of Kasaragod shortly after 8 o’clock. Fortunately, there's always the sugarcane juice sellers for when energy runs low. On reaching Camp 21, situated right on a lonely stretch of beach and with two nipa huts, rooms as well as camping, I knew this was my spot for the night. I parked off, and no one was going to get me away from there.
11-12 January – Camp 21 – Udupi – 72 km
The eclipse of the moon never materialised, or I had my date or time wrong. I waited and waited, and nothing happened. At least I was in bed by 1 a.m. and slept like a log until woken by the chanting from the nearby temple. Not a bad way to start the day. I speak under correction but think the chanting had something to do with the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple, dedicated to the Hindu celibate deity, Ayyappan. It is said to be one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world with an estimate of between 40 and 50 million devotees visiting every year. For days now, I’ve witnessed thousands of vehicles richly decorated with flowers and flags heading in the direction of the temple. What is most interesting is the temple, which has a long history, is located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. I understand the temple is only open once a year during this time. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala includes penance of 41 days consisting of a strict vegetarian diet, celibacy, teetotalism and no cutting of nails or hair. It is a complex pilgrimage with many rules, and I’m not even going to try to understand it.
Most of the day was spent cycling along the main road as finding smaller roads was nearly impossible. Local knowledge told me that there were no ferries across the rivers. I tried a few times but mostly got spat out on the main road again. At least, I met some super friendly people along the way.
Once in Udupi, all hotels were chock-a-block full and I wondered if it was due to the Sabarimala festival or if it was always this popular. The town is home to a very popular 13th-century Krishna Temple, and it is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus.
After trying a few places close to the temple, I called in the help of Booking.com and found accommodation closer to the centre of town. I'll visit the temple in the morning as the plan is on staying another day to give me time to do the usual chores.
The following day was spent catching up with all duties neglected, and it left little time for exploring. The day, however, begged for another visit to Sri Krishna Temple, which is more like an ashram, as the temple area houses various guesthouses and lodgings, as well as restaurants and various plays/performances. It’s a busy area with thousands of devotees milling about, and I enjoyed the evening carnival atmosphere.
13 January - Udupi – Murdeshwar – 103 km
I woke to a racket outside my window and found the market a hive of activity. It was time to get up anyhow, and after coffee I cycled out of Udupi. The route has by now left the state of Kerala and Karnataka was slightly more undulating but equally scenic. Rivers were busy places, and I was surprised at the amount of fishing taking place as, so far, most people were vegetarian. A breakfast stop came after 20 kilometres and the rest of the day was easy cycling with only a few stops for sugarcane or coconut juice.
At around 3.30 p.m. I cycled into the dusty temple town of Murdeshwar, a beachside pilgrimage town. A room was only 500 rupees and, after a shower, I took a walk to the 18 storey Shri Murdeshwar temple. Together with hundreds of pilgrims, we rode the lift to the top floor which had lovely views of the surrounding beaches and the colossal statue of Shiva.
After sunset, there wasn’t much more to do but to retreat to the room, order room service and have a relaxing evening.
14-15 January – Murdeshwar – Gokarna – 78 km
Following smaller roads are always interesting and cycling through these tiny traditional settlements, one stuck out like a sore thumb. Even these small places can be jam-packed with traffic, and it took weaving one's way through the congestion to the centre.
Eventually, I turned off for the pilgrim town of Gokarna. The town is famous for two reasons; firstly, as a holy town where pilgrims traditionally first wash in the ocean before visiting the temples. Secondly, it is a very popular town for alternative Europeans, may it be for the beaches or for spiritual reasons. All this makes Gokarna immensely interesting, and I stayed two nights.
16-17 January – Gokarna – Patnam Beach, Palolem – 87 km
A rather small and bumpy road, busy with school busses and motorbikes, led out of Gokarna. The path came to an abrupt end on reaching the Gangavali River. Fortunately, a small boat ferried people across the river, and they didn’t mind taking bicycles. As always, the foreigner was the main source of interest, and some appeared somewhat suspicious of the stranger in their midst. On the opposite side, the ever-friendly Indians helped with the bike and panniers.
It was a hilly ride along a small, rural road; unfortunately, the path came to an end, and one had to continue on the main road. Cycling along the main road is like watching paint dry. Fortunately, the road was in good condition and the going easy. The strike in Karnataka meant all businesses were closed for the day, and it was nearly impossible to find water, let alone food.
Once across the Karnataka/Goa border, locating a food stall was the first priority and from there on it was a short ride to beachy Palolem. Along the way, I met another cyclist heading south. It’s always nice to chat with them and hear where they are from and where they are going.
Palolem is located along two beautiful bays, jampacked with beach huts and it didn’t take long to locate a suitable one. I can’t recall when last I’ve seen so many white people all in one place - these whites all look the same to me.
Micky’s was the perfect spot with a bar and restaurant right on the beach, a true paradise. In real Goan style, they had an open-mike evening, and I was astonished at the talent! Staying two nights was an easy choice.
I felt like moving on but didn’t get very far as just over the hill was pretty Agonda Beach with rows of beach huts, a restaurant, a bar and shops selling all kinds of trinkets and clothing. I loved everything they sold, from the jewellery to the colourful hippie-style clothing and, if I could, I would have bought it all. Instead, I found a beach hut and parked off for the rest of the day.
Just before sunset, I went for a short 20-minute jog and was happy my toe seemed to have healed. Still, I haven’t tried running with running shoes but will try it next time as I don’t think I will ever be a barefoot runner.
19 January – Agonda – Panaji – 80 km
I was slow in leaving, and it was reasonably late by the time I left my comfortable accommodation. It was a hilly ride, to say the least, and the last 15 kilometres were along the main road which was in the process of being rebuilt – what a mess! I must say, I was rather impressed with their very ambitious project.
Panaji, the state capital, is a laid-back and easy-going town, known for its old Portuguese quarters with typical Portuguese-style architecture. I cycled around the narrow streets lined with brightly painted colonial-style buildings looking for accommodation, of which there were plenty. Mostly, these properties catered for the higher income tourists, and it took a while to find a spot for the night.
20-31 January – Panaji – Arambol – 45km
I left Panaji via a ferry across the Mandovi River, complete with floating casino. It was easy cycling via Singuerim, and I made a quick stop at the Aguada fortress. As I was cycling along the old Portuguese trade route coast, it made me realise what I learnt at school wasn’t entirely correct. The discovery of the sea route to India from Europe, via the Cape of Good Hope, was indeed under the command of Vasco da Gama. What is omitted is that the great Mr da Gama hired an Indian navigator along the Kenyan coast to sail them to India. In typical European arrogance of the time (1498), he never bothered recording the name of this person. I guess without this person, Da Gama might never have made it to India. I wonder if anyone knows the name of this unnamed Indian who made one of the greatest sea route discoveries possible.
Once in Arambol, I located the Peace Garden with a restaurant and a few nipa huts. The huts were terribly basic but had a bathroom of sorts and, as it was only 400 rupees, I offloaded the bicycle.
The plan was on staying only a day or so but, by the second day, I enrolled on a five-day yoga course and, in the end, stayed much longer than anticipated.
Goa has changed tremendously during the years but, still, I consider it the largest collection of alternative people anywhere (OK, except maybe for Dahab, Bangkok and Otres). In the evening, Arambol Beach becomes a circus with dozens of would-be artists practising their newly acquired skills or selling artistic creations. There are only few things I enjoy more than walking along the beach at sunset and witnessing all that is happening.
I was getting slightly bored and played on the internet. In the process, I ordered a few supplements online, something I shouldn’t have done. By the time the yoga was finished, my order still hadn't arrived, and I waited (not so patiently) for the following two days.
There wasn’t much more to do than play with the camera, and my friend, Megan asked about the forehead markings so often seen in India. I know little about this custom but will explain the little I know. Someone once explained it to me, but it is a rather complex custom.
I know these markings as Tilakas or Bindis. I've seen sadhus or holy men with horizontal white lines across their foreheads and others with vertical lines from the nose to their hairline. Others have big red dots between their eyes. I’m of the opinion that these are known as Tilakas. Bindis are mostly worn by women. Indian women don’t wear wedding rings, but traditionally they wear a red dot on their forehead, something which is also supposed to offer protection against negativity. I like wearing (from time to time) those sticky sparkling ones just because they are beautiful. I'm not even sure if it is considered wrong.
Tilakas (again, according to me) mostly refers to a person’s religion. The two vertical lines are worn by those worshipping Vishnu or Krishna. Followers of Shiva wear three horizontal lines symbolising Shiva's third eye. Those with red powder markings are worshippers of Devi or the goddess Kali. As I said, don’t quote me! I hope one of my Indian friends can clarify this.
My online supplement order never arrived and, after waiting another week, I finally packed up and left my humble hut.
3 February – Arambol – Kankavli – 85 km
I was on my planned route for exactly five kilometres before veering right on a tiny rural road. It's always exciting cycling down these tiny roads, and the villagers were equally surprised to see me. I headed slightly inland as I have cycled the coastal route on two previous occasions. The inland route was rather hilly and the going somewhat slow. Towards the end of the day, I headed for the main road as there's always more chance of food and accommodation along these roads.
Just across the Janavali River, I spotted not one but two hotels and opted for the River Lodge which was slightly cheaper at 800 rupees. I was a pleasure to be in a decent room with a hot shower after two weeks of living in a hut. I showered for the longest time ever, but was still shocked at seeing myself in a mirror, I looked far worse than I expected!
Later, I took a walk across the road and had supper at a slightly more upmarket restaurant than the usual street-side dahbas. I was the only one in the restaurant and was treated like a queen.
4 February - Kankavli – Rajapur - 55 km
After breakfast, it was back on the hilly road, and hilly it sure was. The road followed the foothills of the Western Ghats, and there wasn’t one kilometre of level road in sight. Only once did I reach a high-point where I saw hills below me, but then the steady climb continued. The villages along the way were tiny, and not much happened except for cycling past a few cashew nut farms.
Around midday, two friendly Indians stopped and invited me for lunch. How nice of them. After an omelette, a Seven-up and a bottle of water, my energy was replaced, and I was ready to face the hills. On leaving, the waiter came out with a card of a hotel a few kilometres further north, which made up my mind for me. Although it was still early, I called it a day, did my laundry and lazed around.
5-6 February – Rajapur – Kolhapur (by bus)
Some days are more surprising than others. On leaving my abode, which was opposite the bus station, I suddenly had the idea to check out the bus to Kolhapur, located on the eastern side of the Western Ghats. This wouldn’t only save me cycling up a very steep mountain pass but, most of all, it would get me off the narrow mountain road. As luck would have it, there was a bus right then and in no time at all the bicycle and panniers were loaded on the bus. I sat in front with the driver with the bicycle wedged in between us!
It was a hair-raising journey, and all I could do was hold on for dear life. I was happy not to be on the bike as on the narrow road there was no space for a bicycle. Vehicles passing one another had to do so with two sets of wheels off the paved section. I say paved section, but it was more “what was left of the paved section”. Our bus crawled up the pass, overtaking anything moving slower than us, whether it was possible to see what was coming from the front or not. At around 3 p.m., we arrived in Kolhapur after flying down the pass at breakneck speed.
Kolhapur is located way off the tourist route, something which was clearly visible judging by the attention my presence created. The town is well known for its fascinating temple complex dating to 10AD, and there were a few other things I wanted to explore. I, however, found my phone holder had came undone, making navigating the busy town centre difficult. I checked out a few places, but they didn’t provide accommodation for single persons. Most of the budget accommodation catered for pilgrims and a few blocks further my front pannier broke loose, so I opted for the nearest accommodation to fix all that had to be fixed.
The room was more of a storeroom than a bedroom, and they could do well by wiping a damp cloth over the walls and floors. After fixing all, I took a stroll to the temple, but cameras weren’t allowed and, as there was nowhere to leave it, I didn’t go inside. Instead, I found a restaurant and had my usual vegetable masala and roti. I may as well stay another day.
It was great wandering around Kolhapur, especially around the market area. On non-cycling days I have more time, and I’m more relaxed and can enjoy the daily doings of the people. It was midday by the time I got to the market, and the vendors were in a jovial mood. All laughingly pointed out the ones they wanted me to capture and rewarded me with what they had on offer. I chewed on tender carrots, sweet peas and mandarins as I strolled through the market which, by then, felt like home. Some came up to me, pointing at themselves, clearly indicating I have missed them. Although the pics came out all wrong and blurry, it was a fun way to spend a few hours.
7 February – Kolhapur – Umbraj – 80 km
I popped into the New Palace on the outskirts of Kolhapur. Designed by British architect, “Mad” Charles Mant for King Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and constructed between 1877 and 1884, I understand it is still in the hands of the descendants of the king. The ground floor has been turned into a museum and contains a rather bizarre display of stuffed animals, a result of wildlife hunting, a royal sport in those days. The display contains silver elephant saddles and, sadly, stuffed tigers, tiger heads, wild dog, sloth bear, wild buffalo, lion, rhino, black panther, wild boar, buck, deer and a Himalayan black bear! As if that’s not enough, photos depict the Maharajah with his hundredth dead tiger!
The section of road north of Kolhapur ran past sugarcane and corn plantations, and there was no shortage of sugarcane stalls to fill my bottle. The main road to Pune, came with a small road running alongside, making for a relaxed cycle. A road sign indicated Pune to be a further 140 kilometres, and it made sense to call it a day and make the next two days short rides to Pune.
8 February - Roadside Hotel – Roadside hotel - 95 km
The secondary road continued and, like the day before, it ran next to the highway and came with all the conveniences of a highway but minus the traffic. It was a gentle uphill ride for most of the day except for a few mountain passes that slowed the pace considerably. A headwind further hampered efforts, and it took most of the day to cycle the 95 kilometres.
As always, a few pics were snapped but I later realised the camera settings were on manual instead of AV and all pics were overexposed. Just after three, I had enough of the hills and kept an eye out for lodging, as it is called in India. There were quite a few to choose from and I picked the best looking one of the bunch for the night. Hot water was only available in the morning, but the staff brought me a bucket of piping hot water which made getting the dust and grime off me easier. It’s mid-winter in India and the nights and early mornings can be somewhat nippy. After a warm shower, the downstairs restaurant provided paneer masala and garlic naan - absolutely delicious.
9 February - Roadside hotel – Pune – 56 km
On leaving the hotel, I found the back tyre flat which I thought surprising as it was still rock hard the night before, but a slow leak can do that. I, however, had a feeling someone had fiddled with the bike, which might have been the reason for the flat. Instead of unloading the bike and replacing the tube, I only pumped the tyre and, surprisingly, it held the entire day.
Indian food is one of my favourite foods, but not substantial enough for a day of cycling. Although the previous night's food was plentiful, I lacked the energy for the day’s slow climb. Twenty kilometres down the road, a roadside restaurant served a much-needed breakfast, but I think it was the “Thumbs Up” (a brand of cola in India) which did the trick and that helped me slowly make my way over the hills. Fortunately, the map indicated a short ride to Pune albeit with a long climb. You can, therefore, understand my joy in finding a tunnel which shortened the uphill considerably. The surprising part was on the other side of the tunnel - a massive city, resembling one of Chinas “New Cities”. Highrise buildings stretched as far as the eye could see. I flew downhill, reaching speeds of nearly 50 kilometres an hour, and that was into the breeze. Still, it took weaving one's way through a confusing part of the city to get back onto the road to Pune.
Cycling into sprawling Pune took a fair amount of concentration, but I eventually located the hotel I had in mind and found it situated in a surprisingly pleasant part of Pune. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around this interesting area, and it felt like I never stopped eating until it was time for bed.
10-11 February - Pune
I slept like a log, and only got going at around 11 a.m. My first stop of the day was at the Aga Khan Palace, built by Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan III. Legend has it that the palace was built as an act of charity to provide labour for the poor in the neighbouring areas of Pune, who were drastically hit by famine.
The palace is also the place where the British kept Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba Gandhi and his secretary Mahadev Desai prisoner during the Free India Movement. Both Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai died in the Palace during their captivity. Today, the palace is a memorial to Gandhi, and his ashes are buried in the garden.
Then it was on to the Pataleshwar Cave Temple, a rock-cut cave temple carved out in the 8th century and dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva.
It appears that the cave was left incomplete for some reason, possibly because of a fault line found at the back of the sanctum or maybe due to political upheaval at the time.
My last stop was at the Shaniwar Wada fort, constructed by Peshwa Bajirao 1, as a home for the Peshwas in 1730. It is said to be one of the most haunted places in Pune - something one can understand as it has quite an unfortunate history.
According to the legend, the 13-year old prince Narayanrao Peshwa, heir of the Peshwa dynasty, was ordered to be killed by his aunt, Anandibai. His spine-chilling cries of “Save me, Uncle!”, is said to still haunt the walls of the fort. Then, in 1880, the British captured the fort and the owners were forced into exile. In 1818, all except for the foundations when up in flames. Today, the fort is situated in the heart of the old city, but locals claim the cries can still be heard on quiet nights.
12 February – Pune – Ahmednagar – 121 km
Well rested, after another day in Pune, made for an easy day of cycling. The Ellora Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was about 260 kilometres north of Pune and that was where I headed. I understand that it’s one of the largest rock-cut cave temples in the world and that it dates back to around 600 – 1000 CE. This all sounded worthwhile exploring.
The route was dusty and dry as it’s getting to the end of the dry season, and I didn’t spot anything of interest along the way and, therefore, cycled on to Ahmednagar, situated about halfway to the caves. In Ahmednagar, there was plenty of accommodation to choose from, but I wasn’t in the mood for searching for a room and settled for a modern-looking hotel that came with a slightly higher price tag than what I’m used to. It, however, had a large and very comfortable room as well as a popular restaurant. I ordered a thali and was served a huge and very tasty meal. Hungry as I was, I couldn’t even finish half!
13 February – Amhednagar – Aurangabad – 111 km
Twenty kilometres after leaving, the earth fell away and I dropped 200 meters in three kilometres. I flew downhill with panniers flapping in the wind. The rest of the day, the way led past typical Indian rural areas where the ox was still in daily use, from ploughing to pulling carts and extracting juice from sugarcane. Once in Aurangabad, I found a decent hotel as the plan was to stay two nights to visit the Ellora Caves.
After a breakfast of paneer paratha, curd and chai, I hopped on the bus to The Ellora Caves. “Caves” are not really the right word to describe these structures as they were chiselled out of solid rock between 600 – 1000 AD. It is said that the temples were carved out by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain monks (and their helpers, I guess) over many decades. In total, there are 34 temples, some more elaborate than others. I understand that the main temple, the Kailasa Temple, was cut out of the rock by 7,000 labourers over 150 years! One can’t help but be in awe of what was created here. Just to give an idea of size, the Kailasa Temple covers an area twice the size of the Parthenon, and it is double as high. The planning boggles the mind! Not only are these remarkable temples engineering-wise, but it is also the detail in the carved panels that’s rather impressive. It was three o'clock by the time I was done and grabbed a jeep back to Aurangabad. The bus ride to the caves was far more comfortable than the jeep as they piled as many people in as they could. I counted 17, and I was more than happy to get out once back!
14-17 February – Aurangabad – Alibag by bus
My sister, Amanda was planning to visit and I had to leave India at least every three months. It, therefore, made sense that I fly to Thailand for a few days, meet Amanda there, stay at my place in Jomtien for a few days, and then fly to Kerela for a beachy holiday. I was very fortunate that Anil and Janhavi, who lives in Alibag, didn’t mind storing my bicycle and panniers until I got back from my beach-bumming holiday.
The bus ride to Alibag was a long and tedious one but I was grateful for the opportunity to see my friends again. The following day, after a huge lunch, Anil gave me a lift to the Mandwa ferry with his Royal Enfield, which dropped me at the Gateway of India from where it was a short taxi ride to Janhavi’s aunt’s house, where I stayed for the night. Again, I was spoilt rotten and ate even more delicious Indian food.
My flight was at midday and Usha’s driver drove me to the airport - I felt like the Queen of Sheba! Again, I was lucky as the flight was dead on time and we even landed a few minutes early. Once downstairs to get the bus to Jomtien, I found that there was a bus ready to leave and I had to run to be in time. With all my luck, I got home much earlier than expected and collected my key from Glenn at Starlight Bar.